April 16, 2006

The Road to Jerusalem

Passover is a pilgrim festival. For thousands of years Jewish pilgrims have been making their way up to Jerusalem. It is a very special route. After a recent short visit, I turned up a piece I wrote home to my parents over forty years ago after the very first time I went "up" to Jerusalem:

The Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv was a dusty, messy marketplace of hustlers and hawkers and foul smells. Casually dressed, perspiring men and women were pressed into what looked like cattle pens in English county markets, pushing and shouting to get onto the buses as if their noise and shoving would make the queues go quicker. The brusque driver sold pretty little colored ticket tabs according to different destinations (I wonder if anyone collected them) from a metal display box at his side. More and more people were crammed in and soon the gangway was completely full with bodies and bundles.

The dilapidated Egged bus pulled away from the quay and started to crawl through slums and crumbling buildings of downtown Tel Aviv. We passed through the orchards and half Arab half modern prefab towns of the coastal plain interspersed with military camps, light industrial zones, junk and scrap yards, giving way to cultivated settlements and kibbutzim and gorgeously smelling citrus orchards until we reached Ramle where the bus turned into the dirty yellow station and some passengers got off and on. Arab kids were selling bagels and drinks through the windows of the bus. After a short break we set off again and out of town, over the railway tracks and past the huge cement factory and gently up to Beth Shemesh along a poorly maintained road shaded by eucalyptus trees.

On either side of the narrow road (B country road by English standards) large dusty green cypresses and pines covered the rising hills and shaded the valleys. The Jordanian side was totally barren. Browns and yellows spattered with dry scrub and an occasional tree. One could see Arab villages in the distance, the stone buildings camouflaged against the rocky hillsides, occasionally highlighted by a dash of blue paint or a minaret. Winding up the road one passed the burnt-out wrecks of lorries and armored cars left as memorials to those who died trying to maintain contact with besieged Jerusalem in the war of Independence.

The very air spoke of conflict. "Our" side of the border tended and cared for. "Their" side was abandoned, neglected, primitive. "Our" losses in the burnt, bombed convoys, remembered but not dwelt upon. "Theirs" enshrined in a permanent bitterness. "We" were looking forward. "They" were looking back. We passed through the Arab town of Abu Tor, to my eyes quaint and oriental. Then the road began to rise and fall much more steeply and hills became larger and higher. The trees fell away and now only occasional ones dotted the hills. The hills themselves looked like upturned potters' jars, crudely ridged in ochres, browns and pinks. Then way ahead in between the overlapping curves of brown pink-ridged hills appeared Jerusalem. All its buildings in yellowy rose Jerusalem stone spreading across several peaks interspersed with pine and cedar.

The city that Jews, Greeks, Romans, Christians, Muslims, all kinds of travelers had been drawn to. The city that recurred in every prayer, every service, every celebration of Jewish life, of my life and imagination. Except that I had imagined it a green, watered Cotswold village with greens and water and oak trees, Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. But it was not like that at all. It was a dry, dusty, smelly, exotic yellow brown pink oriental town out of which new modern blocks of Jerusalem stone and Bauhaus styles were spreading away under canopies of pines from the old, worn caravan routes that led into Jaffa Street and down and on towards the crude concrete barriers that divided the city between the warring armies.
Yes, I know! Please forgive the simplicities of youth, the naiveties of an innocent perspective. All blacks and whites. Grays seep in later.

Every time I go to Jerusalem the road changes. It is a permanent "work in progress". This time I drove up to Jerusalem not in a hot, smelly, rickety bus, but an air-conditioned limousine. I commented to the driver that the first time I went up to Jerusalem, it was a single track via Bet Shemesh and you could almost touch the blackened hulks of the armored cars that had been destroyed by the Arab Legion.

Then they made it two lanes.

Then after 1967 there was quicker route via Latrun that cut out Bet Shemesh altogether, and they moved the wrecks and painted them.

Then the road was widened to four lanes. And they moved the wrecks farther back and, for some reason, there were fewer of them.

Now its six lanes, the wrecks are even further back and there are even fewer.

"Yes," said the driver, "they get stolen for scrap!"

Sign of the times?

It’s a sign of the times, too, that one passes a spanking new Toll Motorway, the new railway link to Modiin that will extend to Jerusalem. And Jerusalem has spread out virtually halfway down towards the plain, and tower blocks rise up everywhere, and bloody McDonald’s arches herald the approach to the Holy City!

The road, like the country, is constantly changing and reshaping itself, ever dynamic. Not always in a good way, of course. Only imagine the possibilities of a Middle Eastern Common Market. But coming out from stuffy, stifling Anglo-Jewry into the bright hot sunlight of Israel is to feel part of something alive.

Yes, I miss the pioneering innocence of years gone by, the mood of togetherness on the old Egged buses. Yes, I fear the potential explosiveness of the political situation. But then, when was Israel not caught up in conflict and war? Perhaps that’s the way we are meant to be?

As George Bernard Shaw once said of Switzerland, "Five hundred years of peace and all they’ve produced is the cuckoo clock." While we--we archaic, confrontational, argumentative, neurotic Jews--we, according to our enemies, rule the world!

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April 02, 2006

Human Rights

Recently, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a woman left infertile after cancer treatment cannot use her frozen embryos to have a baby. Natallie Evans started IVF treatment with her then partner Howard Johnston in 2001 following a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. The embryos were created and placed in storage. After the couple split up, Johnston withdrew consent for the embryos to be used. Ms. Evans went to the Strasbourg court after exhausting the UK legal process. The judgment said, "The Court, like the national courts, had great sympathy for the plight of the applicant who, if implantation did not take place, would be deprived of the ability to give birth to her own child."

Nevertheless it decided, in a majority verdict, that even in such exceptional circumstances, the right to a family life (set forth in article eight of the European Convention of Human Rights) could not override Mr Johnston's withdrawal of consent. It also ruled unanimously that the embryos did not have an independent right to life. UK laws require both the man and woman to give consent, and either party may withdraw that consent at any point before the embryos are implanted.

This is a good example of how Judaism differs from many other systems of legislation and “morality”. It is true, as several rabbis I know like to assert, that Judaism is a system of obligations rather than rights. Now I'm no civil lawyer so I do not presume to talk about anything other than religious law and ethics. But in Jewish Law the very concept of an obligation implies a right, either a human right or a Divine right. I have an obligation to give the corners of my fields, the gleanings and the leftovers to the poor. But they, for their part, have a right to these. I have an obligation to provide certain things for my wife and she has the right to receive them or else require that she be given a divorce. Conversely a fetus has no rights or obligations but one is not allowed to harm it let alone destroy it as a general rule.

In many respects the obligations of Jewish civil law share a great deal with most civil systems. In both you can find reference to “natural law” and the idea that there are basic, human, rational standards ( though I as a skeptic am delighted that there are contrary opinions for I do not accept the concept ). Human life, the privacy of the human body, protection of the family, property rights, damages and rights of governments to impose fair and equal impositions are all there in Biblical law. Of course its origins are thousands of years old, but that does not mean the constitution is any less capable of interpretation and modern application than say Roman Law or William the Conqueror's.

But there is in Judaism another layer over and above the law best described by the phrase, “You must do that which is good and just (right) in the eyes of YHVH your God” (Deuteronomy 12:28, and Chronicles 31:20 adds the word “true” for good measure). This is often taken to imply “Imitatio Dei” (Imitating God). As Maimonides puts it, “As He is just so must you be.” But I would argue it means that there is a level of morality that is above the law. The law fixes the basic rules. Spirituality adds a higher dimension. Or at least it ought to. So one has obligations to God as well, which is why when we commit a crime against a human we must make it up and atone to that human and then to God.

There are two levels of obligation, civil and religious, and one may call on both of these to protect one's “rights”. However there are two important qualifications and safeguards. One is that the obligation or, if you prefer, the right to life overrides virtually all laws except for blasphemy, murder and adultery. And, secondly, Jewish Law is predicated upon seeking answers from an expert to specific questions so that in one set of circumstances a strict ruling may be given and in another a lenient one, in answer to the exact same question. Except of course the prevailing circumstances may differ. Some might argue that this “relativism”, that morality has no standards and keeps on changing. But it is not. For the principles remain, just the application can vary.

All this is meant to give some basic background to the question of how we deal with modern issues. Biblical Judaism did not face issues of artificial insemination or test tube babies or clones. This does not mean that Jewish Law does not or cannot deal with them. But we will do so on the basis of our system and our laws whilst recognizing that, under alien authorities, “The law of the land is the law.”

A rabbi, when faced with these issues, will bring several principles to bear. There is a principle that “one can benefit a person even without his knowledge.” We would see the possible birth of a child in most cases as a benefit, even out of wedlock. There is a principle that it is an obligation to have children. Of course there are other issues--marriage as being the only way of effecting reciprocity between two people in such a situation is one. There is no legal principle giving paternal rights to a donor father who is unmarried to the mother. But there is indeed a “moral obligation.”

A child has obligations towards its parents of care and respect. Indeed, a community can even force a child to take care of its elderly or incapacitated parents. But legally parents have limited legal responsibility for their children (educating them, marrying them off, and teaching them to swim!) because, being representatives of God, they are assumed to reflect all the expressions of God's care for humanity onto their child. Which is preferable? In a society where people have little or no religious obligation and child abuse is rampant, then clearly society needs to enforce rights as well as obligations. But where parents accept religious values, their obligations towards their children do not need to be spelt out.

It is essential that a judge or rabbi be a caring sensitive human being. A judge in Jewish Law must be married and have children so that he will understand the stress and strains of life when making judgment. Even where one may have to carry out the law and convict a thief who stole to feed his family, a judge also has a religious obligation to ensure that the thief's family is fed.

The trouble with all of this is that, sadly, most religions have large numbers of followers who do not abide by their laws. And equally many religious judges apply the laws from positions of narrow and political perspectives. Many religious judges are all too susceptible to bribes, pressure and prejudice.

This is why in the end I believe that it is very valuable to have to juxtapose our own laws with others. Interaction can be productive and creative. Hiding behind one's own walls can be narrowing, not to say claustrophobic.

Issues such as this one force us to evaluate our own responses, and to make sure that we do indeed follow the principles of doing that which is “good and just and true,” and that we are behaving in a way that glorifies our religion instead of bringing into disrepute or odium.

I regret that so few Jews are aware of the majesty of our legal and moral system and how it works, and automatically assume that their state civil laws are preferable. I would like to argue for greater familiarity with our way of doing things. And I think Ms. Evans may well have got a very different judgment had she done so!

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